In 1987, Congress declared March as National Women’s History Month in order to call attention to the many contributions of women in society. Each week this March, we’re highlighting the lives of some of these great women in blog posts by some by of our notable employees who talk about women who inspired them. This week, Emily Lam, our Compliance Specialist, spotlights Claudette Colvin for her integral role in the Civil Rights Movement.
As a teenager, it takes a lot of bravery to stand up for what we believe in, and even more so when the status quo is so deeply ingrained in us. But at the age of 15, at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, Claudette Colvin did just that.
In 1955, Colvin took the bus home from her high school in Alabama and sat in the segregated seating area. As a young African-American girl, she was asked to give up her seat to accommodate white passengers who had just boarded, but Colvin refused. The driver proceeded to call the police who forcibly removed her from the bus and placed her under arrest. Although only a teenager, Colvin was taken to jail rather than a juvenile detention center. Fortunately, Colvin’s minister, Reverend H.H. Johnson, paid her bail and she returned home to a supportive and welcoming community. Rev. Johnson later told her, “I think you just brought the revolution to Montgomery,” (NPR).
Colvin refused to give up her seat before even Rosa Parks had done so, showing bravery that is even more astounding considering the widespread lynchings and acts of violence perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan during this time period. Colvin stood up for what she believed was right despite the inherent danger of challenging those in charge and facing head-on the policies that so many others were oppressed by.
A member of the NAACP Youth Council, Colvin looked up to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and had been studying historic black leaders such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, who fought against the injustices that they and other African Americans suffered throughout American history. When asked to recount this pivotal moment, Colvin said, “… it felt as though Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth’s hands were pushing me down on the other shoulder. I felt inspired by these women,” (BBC).
Colvin’s bravery inspired action at a time when “separate, but equal” was the norm — a time when classrooms, houses, transportation, drinking fountains, and other aspects of everyday life were segregated in parts of the United States. She paved the way for others to feel empowered to stand up for their freedom. Nine months after her protest, Rosa Parks’ historic arrest made national headlines and started the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Within a year, civil rights attorney Fred Gray filed the landmark case Browder v. Gayle with Colvin as a star witness. After hearing testimony from four other plaintiffs, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was indeed unconstitutional, thus blazing the trail towards the end of segregation.
As a woman of color, I’m inspired by Colvin’s courage and refusal to back down in the face of adversity. By standing up for what is right, she changed the course of American history for the better and contributed to the diversity that is celebrated today. We so often take for granted the degree of freedom with which we live our lives. And for that, we have Claudette Colvin to thank for being an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement.